(June 2015)



Collaborators with Bob Dylan, Levon Helm and Emmylou Harris, they finally make an album

By Steve Dougherty

Teresa Williams is a powerhouse country, blues, gospel and honky-tonk singer who hails from a speck on the map in west Tennessee known as Peckerwood Point.

"It's right up the road from Lizard Lick and not more than a mile from Blue Goose," settlements that aren't on the map at all, notes her husband Larry Campbell, a maestro of Southern roots music who was born and bred in...New York City.

"It was kinda like 'My Cousin Vinny,'" Ms. Williams says of Mr. Campbell's first visit to her family's farm. "I was a little nervous about it because he's all dressed in black and nobody looked like him there."

"But he came with his fiddle and that was an immediate entree. After that they didn't care if I showed up. They just wanted Larry and the fiddle."

Despite the difference in backgrounds, what Ms. Williams calls "the vast divide" in their backgrounds,the couple wed in 1988 - in Tennessee, under a tree planted by Ms. Williams' great-great-grandmother.

And though it was music that bridged that divide and bound them, it also kept them apart as the two pursued separate careers - until now.

"We finally did it!" Mr. Campbell exulted last month as they celebrated the release of their first album together as a duo -"Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams" (Red House), due June 23 - at the City Winery in New York City.

A rootsy collection of 11 original and cover tunes, the album finds the couple harmonizing on tunes like the Rev. Gary Davis's rousing gospel number, "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" and a hymn-like rendition of the Grateful Dead's "Attics Of My Life." The drums of the late Levon Helm are heard on the Louvin Brothers' classic, "You're Running Wild," recorded in 2009 during sessions for "Electric Dirt," one of three Grammy-winning albums that the couple made with Mr. Helm. That collaboration inspired their decision to record their own album together.

"It was a total family affair," Mr. Campbell says of the seven years he and Ms. Williams spent performing and recording in the now legendary Midnight Ramble concert series that Mr. Helm and his friends and family hosted in his barn-like studio in Woodstock N.Y. before his death from cancer in 2012. "Teresa and I were singing together more and more and we both realized how much we loved it."

"The two of them together, that's something special," says roots music star Buddy Miller, another Rambles veteran who, along with his wife, singer-songwriter Julie Miller, have been friends and frequent collaborators with both Mr. Campbell and Ms. Williams since the 1980s.

"Teresa is such a great singer and a dynamo on stage. And Larry, his playing is always phenomenal, but I used to wonder, 'Why aren't you singin' more?' Now he is, and the combination is just as expected - beautiful."

Mr. Campbell also produced the couple's album and plays guitars, mandolin, fiddle and banjo. He wrote six of the tracks, including the rollicking opener, "Surrender to Love" and "Did You Love Me At All," a mournful ballad that Mr. Miller says sounds like "it could have been sung on the Grand Ole Opry by the Louvin Brothers - it's got that kind of timeless melody." Mr. Campbell also co-wrote two other songs on the album, including "Midnight Highway," with Ms. Miller.

The album signals a career shift into auteur mode for Mr. Campbell. Throughout his long and stellar career as one of roots music's most prolific and in-demand collaborators, he's often shied from the spotlight, the consummate backup man. Best known for his long-term gigs backing Bob Dylan and his work with Mr. Helm, Mr. Campbell first made his name as a multi-instrumentalist sideman and session musician. He has backed countless stars - Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Rosanne Cash and Shawn Colvin to name a fraction - since he began his recording career in 1980.

"In the studio, he's the ideal guy," says songwriter and producer Kenny White who frequently works with Mr. Campbell. "He plays it perfectly the first time, then he wants to do it again."

"And he's immaculate. He knows every note he's playing; he's not Alvin Lee slurring his way through. He's a masterful player and picker. And he's badass, as badass as they come."

He's also a sharp-eared talent scout, says Mr. White, who often works with Peter Wolf, the former J. Geils frontman whose more recent solo albums are much-praised by critics. "When we were doing one of Peter's records [2002's "Sleepless"], Larry said, 'You should try Teresa on this.'"

Ms. Williams, herself a session musician who has performed with Emmylou Harris, Mavis Staples and many others, sings backup on Mr. Wolfs "Nothin' but the Wheel" - along with Mick Jagger.

"She just goes right for it, in that Appalachian way of singing, straight to the heart," says Mr. White.

"Country music was like wallpaper where I grew up," says Ms. Williams, whose grandmother sometimes spoke in Elizabethan words and phrases passed down by ancestors who went West in the early 1800s from the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. "She used the word 'hope' for 'help' - 'We're gonna hope him move that.' When I got to college - it's in Shakespeare!"

Mr. Campbell, for his part, discovered roots music secondhand. "They had a ridiculous record collection, with everything from mariachi to opera," he says of his late parents, who were "on the fringes of the '50s bohemian scene." (His father briefly shared an apartment with Norman Mailer and was among the circle of friends who helped launch the Village Voice).

For Mr. Campbell, the real treasures were found in their albums of folk music from the South.

"Blues, rockabilly, country, gospel, bluegrass, old time music - all that stuff, it comes out of the ground, out of human experience, with no frills, there's nothing manipulated about it."

To immerse himself in it, Mr. Campbell traveled to the deep South on a kind of self-designed musical apprenticeship in the 1970s. In places like Mississippi and Louisiana, where his city clothes and long hair brought some unfriendly attention, he made a point of carrying his fiddle wherever he went. "I learned early on it could save my life," he says. "'Boy, you're from New York but you sure can play that fiddle. We'll let you go this time.'"

Mr. Campbell was back home in 1986 when he accepted a club date playing pedal steel guitar for Ms. Williams, who had been singing in jazz clubs and touring the world performing on cruise ships, as well as in musical theater productions.

"I heard him before I saw him at this rehearsal," she recalls. "That gig [at the Bottom Line] was my first foray into country in Manhattan. I didn't know any country players and I was sure the band they got for me wouldn't know what they were doing. And then I heard that pedal steel."

From the beginning of their relationship, the two have enjoyed playing and singing together informally, whether at her family's annual July Fourth picnic in Peckerwood Point where they return each year, or in the rear of Bob Dylan's tour bus when she would visit Mr. Campbell on the road. But they never made a record.

"Friends have been after us to do this for years," Mr. Campbell says. "But always I was busy, Teresa was busy. I'd be travelin' with Bob's band, she'd be travelin', always in different hemispheres."

"Now, it's the best, he adds". "Because you're doing the thing you love the most with the person you want to be with the most."